Experiencing or witnessing episodes of terror, violence and destruction places extra challenges on parents’ ability to talk about and respond to highly stressful events with their children.
Whether discussing Ukraine or other crises, kids look to their parents and the adults around them for how to interpret stressful situations—even infants and toddlers notice anxiety in adults and can pick up on their tone, mood, or language cues. So what can parents say and do to help kids cope?
What follows are examples of practical language and productive responses parents can use to decrease anxiety and boost kids’ mental health, even during adverse experiences.
Validate how you and your child feel:
- It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious in times of uncertainty or crisis. Acknowledge what someone is feeling with the words “of course” and “and”. For example, Of course this is scary, and we are here to protect and support you through this difficult time.
- Listen to your child and use objective language such as, I’m noticing…, It seems…. Adults may find it helpful to first process their own feelings of sadness or anger so they can talk about a situation more calmly with their child. Avoid ineffective comments such as, Don’t worry about it, Get over it or Calm down.
Talk about what’s happening in developmentally appropriate ways:
- Be mindful about kids overhearing adult conversations. It’s not necessary to discuss specifics of a crisis with kids under 7; however, acknowledge something is happening (i.e. even young children can relate to the concept of someone who takes something that does not belong to them) and share concrete information (i.e. we’re collecting food, finding shelter, etc.).
- Follow the child’s lead by asking, “What have you heard?” Reinforce examples of people taking steps to keep others safe (humanitarian workers, volunteers, etc.) and encourage kids to “look for the helpers.”
Model language of flexibility:
- Acknowledge times when you or your child have adapted to change or something that didn’t go as planned. This builds resilience and flexibility and sends a message of hope that productive change is possible.
Keep routine and play part of the day:
- Stick to routines as much as possible (i.e. morning, school, afternoon, sleep, self-care, etc.)
- Instead of pressuring yourself to have a joyful day, shoot for joyful moments. Make play part of the day for kids, and bring new energy into a room by dancing or singing. (i.e. the 9-year-old girl singing Let it Go in a bunker).
Help kids reset:
- Children of all ages, even toddlers, can reduce anxiety by shifting their attention from worrying thoughts to what they can see, smell, hear, feel and taste. “Count colors” by asking, “Find 5 things in this room that are green.” Continue with a countdown of 4 things that are blue, 3 that are yellow, etc. Do a variation of the same with the other senses.
- Other reset strategies include: breathing techniques, exercise/movement, distractions, music, and mindfulness. Keep in mind the best time to teach kids a reset strategy is when they’re calm vs. highly stressed.
Maintain a sense of connection:
- Positive childhood experiences based on connection with friends, family, caregivers, or community helpers can powerfully influence how kids experience trauma. According to Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and anxiety expert, the following buffers can boost a kid’s psychological immune system and prevent mental health issues, even in traumatic situations, though some children may need professional support:
- Ability to talk to family about feelings
- Family stands by child in tough times
- Community traditions
- Feels supported by friends
- Has 2 non-parent adults that take an interest in child
- Feels safe and protected by adult
Parents and adults have the power to help shape kids’ resilience and anxiety management skills, even when bad things happen. While it’s not realistic to eradicate the fear and pain associated with a war or crisis, these tips on how to talk to and respond to stressful situations will help boost kids’ ability to manage anxiety, even during difficult times.